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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: July ::
Shakespeare and Indianapolis Sinking
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1663  Friday, 19 July 2002

From:           Richard Burt <
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Date:           Wednesday, 17 Jul 2002 14:44:46 -0400
Subject:        Shakespeare and Indianapolis Sinking

July 16, 2002

By Yonder Blessed Moon, Sleuths Decode Life and Art
By LEON JAROFF

On its way back from the Pacific island of Tinian, where it had
delivered the uranium core for the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima,
the heavy cruiser Indianapolis was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine
I-58 and sent to the bottom of the Philippine Sea. It was one of the
worst disasters in American naval history; only 317 of its nearly 1,200
crew members survived.

Now experts at Southwest Texas State University have given that tragic
story a startling new twist. it was the moon, they say, that sank the
Indianapolis. Or anyway, they write in the July issue of Sky &
Telescope, it was the moon that made the sinking possible.

Using astronomical computer programs, records and weather reports, as
well as the known coordinates and running speeds of the ship and the
submarine that sank it, the authors determined that when the I-58
surfaced, it was perfectly aligned, west to east, with the cruiser. And,
they said, a three-quarter moon had just emerged from behind the clouds.

Looking across the moonlit water, an I-58 crewman spotted the ship
silhouetted against the sky, 10.3 miles away. Half an hour later, six
torpedoes sent it to the bottom.

"It was sheer chance," said Dr. Donald Olson, an astronomer. "Without
that alignment with the moon, the lookouts would not have spotted the
cruiser, especially at that distance."

With Russell Doescher, a physics lecturer, Dr. Olson conducts a
university honors course called "Astronomy in Art, History and
Literature." In the last 15 years, he has pinpointed the time and place
of the rendering of art masterpieces, given new interpretations of
astronomical references in Chaucer and revealed the decisive role of the
moon in military and other encounters.

Two years ago, for example, Dr. Olson turned his attention to the bright
star in van Gogh's "White House at Night." He and some students went to
Auvers, France, where van Gogh created his final works, and searched
until they found the house, largely unchanged. Sifting through letters
from van Gogh to his brother, Dr. Olson found that the painting was
completed in June 1890.

Noting the orientation of the house in the painting, he determined where
van Gogh had set his easel and what section of the sky he had portrayed,
and from the lighting and shadows, he established that the house had
been illuminated by the setting sun. His computer analysis then
identified the "star." It was Venus, which in early evening in mid-June
had occupied that part of the sky.

A final check of local weather records pinpointed the actual date van
Gogh had composed the painting, June 16, the only clear day in the
middle of the month that year.

Dr. Olson has also turned his attention to Shakespeare, intrigued by the
opening of "Hamlet," when guards on the ramparts of Elsinor refer to the
"star that's westward from the pole had made his course to illume that
part of heaven where now it burns." From the guards' description, the
season and the time, other astronomers had suggested several bright
stars as possibilities, but Dr. Olson's calculations placed it in the
constellation Cassiopeia, which lacks any notably luminous stars.

Pondering this problem on a trip with his wife, Dr. Olson was suddenly
inspired. He was aware that in 1572, a supernova, called Tycho's star,
for the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, suddenly flamed in Cassiopeia,
creating a worldwide sensation. Shakespeare, 8 at the time, would
certainly have recalled the event, and his memory was probably refreshed
by the description of the supernova in a history book that was the
source of some of his best-known plays.

Dr. Olson has no doubt that the star that glared above Elsinor that
night was Tycho's, and he has an impressive record of other
astronomy-based sleuthing.

Aware that the photographer Ansel Adams often neglected to date his
negatives, Dr. Olson set out to find when Adams had shot his classic
"Moon and Half Dome." At Yosemite, Dr. Olson and his students found
Adams's vantage point, studied the location, phase and features of the
moon in the photograph, plus the shadows on the Dome, snow on the peak
and other clues, and then announced that the picture had been taken at
4:14 p.m., Dec. 28, 1960.

Then, Dr. Olson calculated that the setting would be virtually identical
at 4:05 p.m. on Dec. 13, 1994. On that day Adams's daughter-in-law
visited Yosemite and was photographed holding a print of "Moon and the
Half Dome" in the foreground of an eerily similar view of the actual
moon and the Half Dome.

Analyzing Chaucer's works, Dr. Olson has confirmed that a particularly
rapid movement of the moon described in "The Merchant's Tale" occurred
in April 1389. And in "The Franklin's Tale,

 

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